Essays, “takes,” news articles, and one Twitter thread that have affected me in the last three months. Curious as always for your thoughts and reflections.
Carsie Blanton, “The Problem with Panic.” A sex-positive musician and educator reflects on sexual autonomy, #metoo, and the moral power of sex in our culture. Sex remains one battleground in which patriarchy controls, devalues, and silences women. But sexual assault also weaponizes a shame already present in our culture’s understanding of all sex. Blanton is fearful that the left may come to believe that we can legislate our way to “prudence” or “temperance,” without working to undo this sexual shame by talking honestly and specifically about the complexity of sex. “Sexual assault is about power; sex works as a method of control because sex and its attendant cultural narratives are so powerful.” Sex offender registries– enacted in a moral panic– do not deter first offenders or reduce recidivism. These punitive systems also fail to make important distinctions between different “sexual offenses,” in a way that Blanton feels destroys lives and also ultimately trivializes rape and assault. Blanton ends by reflecting on the work of undoing sexist socialization, toward a fuller sense of agency for women, that will make both sexual autonomy and intersectional solidarity more possible.
Agnes Callard, “Can We Learn to Believe in God?” Callard invites readers to consider openness to religion not as self-deception, but as an act of aspirational faith, similar to the fragile, doubt-filled hopes we hold about things such as our friends’ fidelity or our dreams’ likely success. As with sharing any new pleasures with a skeptical acquaintance, “you want him to try to believe them to be more valuable than he has currently has reason to, in order to learn their true value.” It takes openness to believe that there could be something utterly wonderful– something that could connect us with a more profound sense of meaning, kinship, and durable joy– waiting for us in life. Callard encourages us to view that openness as something other than self-manipulation.
Google researcher Francois Chollet posted this thoughtful, scary Twitter thread on Facebook’s use of AI. As algorithmic curation gets more pervasive and AI gets smarter, humans’ innate vulnerability to social manipulation is more and more under the power of systems such as Facebook that control what information we consume. He ends: “If you work in AI, please don’t help them.” I add: please consider getting the hell off of Facebook!
Terry Eagleton, “‘Cast a Cold Eye’: How to Think about Death“: An article from my favorite Christian Marxist theorist, on the liberating possibility of the acceptance of death. The call to “act always as if you and history were about to be annihilated” can be a call toward the radical affirmation, not negation, of value. Since no act can be undone, each act can be a preparation for the finality of death. So, in pursuing a moral commitment to liberation even to death, we can wrest meaning from death, in an assertion of the durability of the virtues we’re ready to die for. “Resurrection” promises not perpetuity, but an unimaginable transformation and redemption. Death itself, meanwhile, remains both unremarkable and inconceivable. “…Like love, death searches out what is most singular about a person, poignantly highlighting their irreplaceability. One of Plato’s objections to tragedy is that by furnishing us with images of death it reminds us of our apartness, thus undermining political solidarity. For Hegel, death, like law, is a universal truth that nonetheless confronts us with our utter irreducibility as individual selves, at once leveling and individuating. Like the human body, it is both an external fatality and radically one’s own, a mode of distinction but also a shared condition.”
Andi Grace, “Power under Abuse: What It Is and How to Heal.” How do we have mutual accountability in relationships when there are profound differences in power? This article asks extremely tough, complex questions about survival mechanisms from trauma and oppression; about comfort, entitlement, and shame; and about compassion.
Shaun King, “Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Promised a Criminal Justice Revolution. He’s Exceeding Expectations.” When I saw scholar, professor, and activist James Forman Jr. speak in Seattle, he stressed that mass incarceration was constructed not by a single cultural turn but by countless small, often local, policy decisions. Forman said, too, that undoing it would require similar small, local steps, and encouraged activists to work not just for noble public defenders and City Council members, but enlightened and anti-racist prosecutors and DAs. Such people are out there and should be encouraged to run, Forman said. Larry Krasner has been a spectacular example of this: since taking office, he’s fired 31 prosecutors for opposing a civil rights agenda; he’s permanently prohibited 29 of Philly’s most tainted police officers from ever being called as witnesses; he’s ordered his prosecutors to decline charging marijuana possession or sex work; he’s increased diversions and softened the plea-bargain process; and he’s mandated that post-release probation be shortened to 12 months or less. Institutional transformation is, of course, vulnerable to rollback; it’s also not the same as structural transformation. (Like, does Philly have the staff in its diversion programs necessary to accept the flood of those newly referred to them? Does the police chief support Krasner enough to stem the plainly predatory and racist police practices that lead to arrests in the first place? What would it take for Philly’s schools to also adopt a diversion-based, civil rights vision of discipline?) But damn, it’s something.
Esther Perel, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship.” In this TED-ish chat, Perel examines the cultural uniqueness of modern Western coupledom— the strained belief that a partner can be one’s village, co-parent, friend, lover, and life partner— and then talks about the work of cultivating a space for the erotic– the playful, selfish, exploratory, resistant, vibrant– amid the commitment and responsibility of love. Some cool Freudian stuff as well about the messages our child self receives about the danger and joy of the world beyond the parents’ arms.
Evan Rytlewski looks back to an album I used to love and now can barely stomach, Sublime’s 40oz. to Freedom. Its eclecticism still feels utopian; the genres it sponges up I still adore; the musicianship is outstanding. But Brad Nowell’s lyrical boorishness and shameless copycatting wear me out. Why did this album strike the chord it did? Read on…
Rebecca Traister, “This Moment Isn’t (Just) about Sex. It’s Really about Work.” One critique of #metoo is the movement’s focus on violations in professional, rather than domestic, spaces. But, Traister says, this economic emphasis is important to examine for its own sake, beyond our patriarchal culture’s fascination with perceived threats to women’s virtue. “What makes women vulnerable is not their carnal violability, but rather the way that their worth has been understood as fundamentally erotic, ornamental; that they have not been taken seriously as equals; that they have been treated as some ancillary reward that comes with the kinds of power men are taught to reach for and are valued for achieving.” Traister notes that spaces and professions populated by poorer POC women haven’t been examined in this movement’s moral reckoning; she ends with the hope that this moment may begin the work of “addressing and beginning to dismantle men’s unjustly disproportionate claim to every kind of power in the public and professional world.”
Jenna Wortham, “Is RuPaul’s Drag Race the Most Radical Show on TV?” An awesome, nuanced profile of RuPaul. Wortham looks hard at some of the critiques of drag– from the malleability that drag assumes of femininity, to its fraught relationship to trans rights, to its roots in the interpretation/satirization of black womanhood– and also at the cultural earthquake that Drag Race has precipitated. Wortham points out the risks drag performers take on in a patriarchal society, the contempt aimed at those seen as willingly giving up the protected domain of male privilege. She also reflects on the profound generational shift around questions of identity that RuPaul reflects: from the 90’s-rooted idea that liberated communities could arise from satire and free play, to our current relationship to identity where “sharpening categories [is] a means to demand inclusion and recognition.”
Matt Yglesias, “Everything We Think We Know about the Political Correctness Debate Is Wrong.” The assumption among nervous liberals, outraged right-wingers, and everyone who absorb their thinkpieces– that college kids increasingly reject reasoned argument, that righteous young people mob-attack dissent, and that media echo-chambers have left us all less tolerant– isn’t supported by survey data. “”Overall public support for free speech is rising over time, not falling. People on the political right are less supportive of free speech than people on the left. College graduates are more supportive than non-graduates. Indeed, a 2016 Knight Foundation survey showed that college students are less likely than the overall population to support restrictions on speech on campus.” But dig the utterly unsurprising exception: “Among the public at large, meanwhile, the group whose speech the public is most likely to favor stifling is Muslims.”